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American Journalism Review
A Dying Breed  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 1994

A Dying Breed   

The old-style city editor was tough and politically incorrect and sometimes cruel – but he usually delivered. He's giving way to people in suits who are better at strategic planning than covering fires.

By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp ( began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


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   » By Carl Sessions Stepp

They made you swear and they made you cry, and some days you despised their copy-slashing guts – but, hey, don't you owe the city editors who broke you in?

They're dying away now, almost extinct, a Neanderthal league of the politically incorrect, a dwindling herd of inky-fingered, whiskey-breathed, tyrannosaurus wrecks, edged aside by the Suits and the Slashes, the Assistant Managing Editor/Locals, manicured managers for modern times.

Once they were kings.

The title resounded with glory. City editors bestrode the newsroom with the supremacy of Zeus and the swagger of Civil War generals. Hardened journalists cringed at their lacerating sarcasm, but a city editor's wink could render the coldest-blooded writer sniffly.

Stanley Walker of the New York Herald Tribune, perhaps the most famous of them all, captured the legend this way in his book "City Editor":

"He invents strange devices for the torture of reporters, this mythical agate-eyed Torquemada with the paste-pots and scissors. Even his laugh, usually directed at something sacred, is part sneer. His terrible curses cause flowers to wither, as the grass died under the hoofbeats of the horse of Attila the Hun. A chilly, monstrous figure, sleepless, nerveless, and facing with ribald mockery the certain hell which awaits him."

Yet, looking back, journalists tend to remember them fondly, to miss their incendiary personalities. For all their pitiless bluster, old-line city editors were leaders and teachers, immovably loyal and unforgettably inspiring, and consumed constantly with mad, delirious pursuit of the latest three-alarm news story.

Characters like Clem Lane of the Chicago Daily News who, according to his obituary, "ruled the city fiery justice" from 1942 to 1958. James McCartney, who broke in under him, describes him as "the archetype of the old-fashioned city editor, an Irish Catholic, reformed alcoholic with a high school education, a great mane of white hair.. irascible, immensely honest, tremendously talented, the personification of the newspaper..and very, very difficult to work for."

Or Alex Haviland of the Boston Globe, a city desk fixture from 1937 to 1958, remembered by longtime Globe editor Jack Driscoll as "a man of very few words and very little intense that even his hand gestures and facial gestures would elicit response from reporters"; described in his obituary as "revered – which is not too strong a word – by two generations of Globe reporters whom he taught the fundamentals of covering news fairly, accurately and completely."

Most were men, but one who wasn't – Aggie Underwood, who became city editor of the Los Angeles Evening Herald-Express in 1947 – held her ground. "I don't take any back talk, insulting loafing, or smart-aleck insubordination," she proclaimed in her book "Newspaperwoman." But she also observed, "The period is passing when a city editor may whip reporters and photographers like dogs."

The period passed, and so did the mold for the old-fashioned city editor. The title remains, of course, but less so the unquestioned authority and dominion it once signalled.

City editors tend to be more responsible today but less colorful. Their signature specialty – frantically deploying the troops on deadline to corral breaking news – counts for less in the TV age. Top-down management has yielded to more collegial approaches. Current city editors do more planning, produce more enterprise, spend more time managing than muscling.

Today's typical city editor is better trained, more rounded and surrounded by more assistants, more the "New World editor" than the "Cro-Magnon city editor," according to Jeff Cowart, who runs American Press Institute seminars for city editors. Most serve for only two or three years, Cowart says, seldom long enough to develop the encyclopedic community consciousness and street-smart craftiness of many old-timers.

"In the old days," says Cowart, an ex-city editor himself, "the city editor primarily came in and rawhided copy through the desk. Now they have to be total newspaper thinkers. They have to deal with research data, marketing people, community interaction programs... One day they realize they're serving on the newsroom re-carpeting task force and haven't edited a story in three weeks."

So the old-style ones are going.

But not quite gone.

Still Tall in the Newsroom n Julius Parker is a former pro wrestler who saw World War II action in the Philippines and in Europe, so he's never taken much guff as a city editor. Which is good, since he's been one since 1968, presiding with both iron fist and, occasionally, velvet glove over about 20 reporters at the Chattanooga Free Press.

At 79, he's certainly a leading candidate for the Oldest Living City Editor. And at 230 pounds, he still has little trouble governing the newsroom he first joined 47 years ago.

?e knows times have changed. "I try not to shout as much as I used to," Parker concedes. He admits to more concern these days for what he calls the "niceties" – like telling reporters to make sure someone's at home before they go into a house and confiscate a needed photo.

Àill Dedman, who reported for Parker before going on to win a Pulitzer Prize with the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, remembers him as the typical "big gruff fellow with the heart of gold."

But he also remembers Parker as sternly in charge. Dedman, now director of computer-assisted reporting for AP, recalls once trying to devise a scheduling system so reporters wouldn't have to wait till the last minute to know which days they worked.

Parker examined it and then told him, as Dedman recalls, "This is great. But it removes my ability to punish reporters. If we did this and Randy over there is screwing off, I wouldn't have any way to make him work Saturday night."

These days, Parker says he's mellowed. "I've found you don't get the best work out of people by browbeating them," he says. "When you have a good horse, you don't ride it too hard."

That sentiment is echoed by another longtime city editor, Tom Sawyer, now at the York Dispatch and Sunday News in Pennsylvania. Sawyer, 57, first became a city editor at the Palm Beach Post in the early 1970s.

Back then, he recalls, he could pull almost anything, like persuading a female reporter to dress up in a bikini and perch on a beach to attract an interview with the visiting King Hussein of Jordan.

"I wouldn't even think of suggesting that today," Sawyer says.

Sawyer's temper is well-known, though he says he's a "pussycat" – except near deadline.

Beth Arburn Davis, a reporter who once worked for him and now freelances, says Sawyer could "reduce experienced reporters to a quivering pile of gelatin." Once she watched Sawyer deal with an angry telephone caller.

"I watched him literally color. It started at the neck and spread upward," Davis recalls. "He began to shake. He could just not control it. Finally, he just yelled into the phone, 'You go to hell!' "

"I've had to change a lot," the veteran editor says. "You don't yell at reporters like you used to. It's different from the old days when you had hard, breaking news all the time. Now I'm the city editor, but sitting right here beside me is the issues and trends editor."

Sawyer loves his work ("I'd hate to be a State Farm Insurance salesman") but misses some of the old flavor.

"You've lost all the news characters. I don't know anybody in the newsroom who even drinks. When I started out, the problem was alcoholism. Now people are into health food and drinking orange juice in the newsroom."

He thinks today's reporters often lack the zeal for chasing good stories, and he has a personal insight into what he sees as their lack of breadth: When he tells them that he's named for "the Tom Sawyer in the book," many don't know what he's talking about.

Of Rats and Men n In his book "The Paper," Richard Kluger vividly portrays legendary city editor Stanley Walker, who took over the New York Herald Tribune city desk in 1927 at age 30 and nurtured, inspired and taught countless writers of his generation:

"He dressed in conservative navy blue, liked a good cigar, was something of a gourmet and a serious drinker – mostly of scotch, of which he was said to be able, in his prime, to consume a dozen to 20 shots a day and hold it...

"The parade of visitors to his desk..featured press agents, tipsters, job-seekers, columnists, mobsters, police inspectors, politicians, actors, writers not seeking jobs, and preachers... The endless phone callers..were divided about equally between the bizarre and the celebrated; Governor Al Smith might be croaking away at the other end..or some old crony from Texas advising him, exclusively, that Wyatt Earp had just died...

"Advised that it was pointless for him to try to match the local coverage of the New York Times because its enormous staff had a man to watch every rathole in the city, Stanley Walker characteristically responded that the Herald Tribune would succeed by assigning a rat to watch every manhole."

The Legendary Mr. Lane n Knight-Ridder columnist James McCartney is a former president of the high-powered Gridiron Club of Washington who has covered premiers and presidents for over 40 years.

But he still refers to Clem Lane as Mr. Lane, and he still remembers his third day on the job, in September 1952, when he was two minutes late for work.

"Mr. McCartney," Lane told him, "if you want to work here, when I tell you to be somewhere at 9 o'clock, you'd better be there at 9 o'clock."

Later that winter, McCartney and his wife were driving to work one morning when their car overheated on Chicago's busy Lake Shore Drive. McCartney bolted into the street, hailed a cab, and abandoned his wife with the steaming car.

"I'm sorry to do this, honey," he yelled back, "but I've got to be in the office by 9 o'clock."

Lane inspired respect and fear bordering on awe. "He was very explosive," Daily News writer Jack Mabley once wrote. "One day he stalked to my desk, slammed a story down, and shouted, 'This is the worst story I ever read in my life.' I knew this was his way of saying 'Please rewrite the first paragraph,' but it was embarrassing."

Yet, Mabley added, "I wrote millions of words for him... I was never told to hold back anything, or to favor one man, or one cause or one religion. The only thing he ever told me was, 'Write it right straight down the middle.' "

Like many city editors of his generation, Lane worked by driving people to achieve. "He was a perfectionist," says Margaret Whitesides, Lane's longtime assistant. "He would yell and scream if things didn't go very well. But he didn't hold a grudge."

A softer touch outside the office, Lane worked devotedly for church and charitable causes, and he ultimately became a driving force in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Whitesides recalls that Lane and a colleague once left work to attend a holy day mass, stopped off afterward at a saloon, and never got back to the newsroom.

"They slunk into their desks on Monday morning," Whitesides recalls, "and somebody said, 'You Catholics certainly have long services.' "

The Front Page Devil n Journalists repeatedly link older city editors to the rowdy "Front Page" era chronicled in the 1928 play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. In the play (and in the classic movie "His Girl Friday"), editor Walter Burns, while called a managing editor, embodies many qualities of the old-fashioned city editor.

Here's how Hecht and MacArthur describe him: "Beneath a dapper and very citizen-like exterior lurks a hobgoblin, perhaps the Devil himself... Mr. Burns is that product of thoughtless, pointless, nerve-drumming unmorality that is the Boss Journalist – the licensed eavesdropper, troublemaker, bombinator and Town Snitch, misnamed The Press."

The Loyal Mr. Jones n Jack Nelson, Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, pinpoints a day around 1959 to illustrate his most memorable city editor, Howell Jones of the Atlanta Constitution.

Nelson had completed a story about corruption in highway contracts around Baxley, Georgia. The day before the article was to run, two highway engineers drove to Atlanta to contest Nelson's conclusions.

At a gathering in Publisher Ralph McGill's office, City Editor Jones listened as the engineers challenged Nelson's story. Finally, Jones eyeballed the visitors and told them he stood behind Nelson.

"You could hear the presses running in the building in those days," Nelson recalls. "And old Howell Jones looked at them and said, 'It's too late now. The presses are running.' It was just like something out of Hollywood. And they broke down and confessed right there in front of the publisher.

"That was Howell Jones. He was always right there with the reporter."

The Meanest of Them All? n That title probably rests safe with Charles Chapin, described by Alexander Woollcott as "the acrid martinet who used to issue falsetto and sadistic orders from a swivel chair" in the New York Evening World of the 1920s.

One famous story, recounted by Woollcott, has Chapin assigning a reporter to interview a rough-and-tumble cowboy. The cowboy tossed the reporter down a flight of stairs and threatened to shoot him. So the reporter crawled to a phone and informed Chapin he had failed to get the interview. "Look here," Chapin told the reporter, "you go back and tell that bully he can't intimidate me."

As city editor, Chapin fired 108 people. One of them was a reporter who had missed a deadline. Here's how Chapin delivered the news: "You say you work for the Evening World, do you?" the city editor barked into the phone. "You're a liar. [You] stopped working for the Evening World an hour ago."

Told that Chapin was too ill to come to work one day, reporter Irvin S. Cobb remarked, "I trust it's nothing trivial."

Chapin's own story ended in true tragedy. He was executed in Sing Sing for murdering his wife.

Beauty and the Beast nÍaunted sportswriter Jim Murray, in "An Autobiography," describes Los Angeles Examiner City Editor Jim Richardson as "a one-eyed, iron-lunged, prototypical Hearst city editor, a tyrant of the city room."

Murray recounts how Richardson once ordered reporter Wain Sutton to call the mother of a murder victim.

" 'Don't tell her what happened,' he instructed, 'tell her that her daughter's just won a beauty contest at Camp Roberts. Then get all the information on her.'

"Sutton did as instructed. The mother happily confided her daughter's life history. Then Sutton put his hand over the mouthpiece. 'Now what do I do?' he wondered. Richardson looked at him wickedly. 'Now tell her,' he purred."

My Dad, the City Editor niJane Hadro, a legal editor for the Bureau of National Affairs, grew up with a city editor for a father.

Poppa Ed Hadro was city editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press from 1964 to 1982. A colleague said he represented the "World War II type" of city editor: stubborn, principled and earnestly attached to the community.

What Jane Hadro remembers is how he would edit her homework – and "read the riot act" to teachers who gave her poor grades for it.

He also edited her letters home from college.

"I came home once and saw one of my letters on his desk," she recalls. "There were things circled, and spelling errors marked. I just started to cry. He had been giving them to my mother and telling her, 'Send them back to her.' But my mother couldn't do it."

He Died at His Post n Lou Linley died at his desk in the Baltimore News American newsroom, a city editor till the end.

"He came to work about 6:00 or 6:30, and about an hour later he just fell over," remembers Butch Ward, a Philadelphia Inquirer assistant managing editor who worked for Linley. "He died in his newsroom."

City editor from 1973 to 1985, Linley served as something of a bridge between eras.

His predecessor, Eddie Ballard, dominated the News American during the turbulent 1960s. "Pure glands," was the way one former staffer described him. Michael Olesker, now a columnist for Baltimore's Sun, remembers Ballard as "presiding over a 'Front Page' style newsroom, with racetrack characters..a lot of drinking..a bookie operation upstairs."

Linley, too, "was a hard-bitten city editor who knew a good crime story and how to get it," Ward says. But he also saw that journalism was changing, and encouraged reporters to do deeper, broader coverage.

"He appreciated good storytelling," Ward continues. "He wasn't just an inverted pyramid kind of guy. The staff would run through walls for him. To a person, they felt there was a wisdom and a kindness in him."

But Linley commanded his city room. "He was a big man, probably about six-three or six-four. I'm sure he weighed 250 pounds," Ward says. "I saw him throw a few telephones."

Amy Eisman, now managing editor of USA Weekend magazine, remembers Linley as "a big round guy with white hair and chubby cheeks and a big walrus mustache."

Once, Linley sent Eisman to Ocean City to find the best places to surf.

"I called him and said I've found the beaches, and it's this one and that one," Eisman recalls. "He said, 'Mon amie, have you been surfing?' I said, 'No, I didn't even bring a bathing suit.' He said, 'You'll figure something out.'

"So I went to a store and bought a T-shirt and a pair of shorts. And I walked up to a kid on the beach and said, 'My city editor says I can't write about surfing unless I go surfing.' So he takes me out into the Atlantic, and I do it for a few minutes and then get out, all squishy, and drive to the first pay phone I could find, and call Lou. And he said, 'Way to go, mon amie, you can come home now.' "

Standing Up to Mr. Chappell n Ed Cray, author and University of Southern California journalism professor, was a high school kid taking sports scores part time one day in 1949 when Gentleman Charles Chappell, city editor at the Los Angeles Daily News, unexpectedly summoned him. A man had been killed in a traffic accident.

"Chappell wanted me – the freshest-faced kid in the newsroom – to go with a photographer to the widow's home, and ask her for a photograph of her husband before the other papers got there. I was instructed to tell her that I would be fired if I didn't come back with the picture.

"I went. And it fell to me to tell the poor woman that her husband was dead. The cops had screwed up. I think it was probably the worst assignment I have ever had... I came back with the photo.

"A week later, of course, there was another accident. Mr. Chappell looked across the city room with his death-ray stare, and beckoned once more to me. I went over, knowing deep down what he wanted.

" 'Young man, I want you to go with Joe here and get a picture of...'

" 'No, Mr. Chappell,' I stammered. 'I won't do it.'

"Chappell stood up, about eight feet tall to be sure, and looked down at me. And looked. I wilted. My journalism career was over for sure, my lifelong dream shattered by my cowardice.

"Then after what seemed like minutes, he curtly nodded. Just once. And turned away.

"He never asked me again to go out and get a photo from the newly made widow. But a week or so later, he called me over and suggested I start doing a little rewrite for him."

City rooms and city editors seem different now, more businesslike, less capricious. As Baltimore columnist Michael Olesker puts it, "Going to work at the News American was like going to work in a friendly neighborhood bar. Coming to work at the Sunpapers is like coming to work for the bar association."

Journalists nostalgically recognize something has been lost, but few think the old ways would suit the modern newsroom.

"I think of Lou Linley and I think of the smells of the city, and I hear the fire engines going outside," says Amy Eisman. "They knew their cities like the back of their hand.

"I do think something has been lost, but I don't think it should be brought back," she adds. "Lou was like the captain of the ship, a father figure in the newsroom. You did what he said. That was an era that has passed. It shouldn't come back."

Good riddance to the rascals. And thanks. l



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